The Manor of Belsize: 19th Century London

5 June 2019

1696 Jan Siberechts, (Flemish-born English artist, 1627‑c.1700) View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex

Dating back to the 14th century, the Manor of Belsize was the starting point for the area we know now as Belsize Park. Originally a division of the Manor of Hampstead, the area was mainly comprised of farmland and pastures, which surrounded the manor house. 

Throughout the centuries, the grounds surrounding the manor house continued to evolve, with additional dwellings gradually being added. Indeed, this development of the land continues to this day, with many residential buildings still being commissioned, constructed and renovated.

By the early 18th century, the Manor of Belsize had become known by its modern-day moniker; Belsize Park. Named after rebuilt manor house and parklands created by Daniel O’Neill, the area became a haven for fun and entertainment. First opened to the public in 1721, the parklands provided the perfect escape from the harsh realities of the City and were seen as a place to host concerts and take part in various country sports.

Whilst Belsize Park grew steadily throughout the 18th century, it wasn’t until the Ecclesiastical Leases Act of 1842 that development really gained any traction. With the right to grant leases of church land, much of Belsize Park could now be leased on long-term contracts. As well as bringing in income for the Church, these leaseholds enabled developers to transform Belsize Park into a more urban area.

Throughout 1850-1860 alone, hundreds of residential properties were built in the area, with Belsize Park architects favouring the fashionable stucco houses seen in Bayswater and Kensington. With demand for luxury homes and mansions within commuting distance to the City, Belsize Park began to establish itself as a hidden gem within London’s boundaries. As the middle-classes clamoured to purchase homes in the area, Belsize Park was – and remains – one of the most coveted residential locations in the capital.

The development of modern-day Belsize Park

Having expanded to include the northern parts of the Chalcots Estate, modern-day Belsize Park has its roots firmly in the 19th century. Indeed, a number of existing homes in the area date back to this era, and many have been carefully modernised with input from Belsize Park architects. 

While the number of residential homes in the area continued to increase, Belsize House itself became somewhat rundown and in need of substantial works. Daniel Tidey was commissioned to re-design the estate, resulting in the demolition of Belsize House and the park walls surrounding the grounds. Adding semi-detached houses with an average of 8-10 bedrooms, as well as hundreds of smaller homes, the new development attracted both wealthy and middle-class families to the area.

In addition to the proliferation of housing in the area, numerous other facilities and amenities were constructed. Perhaps most importantly, transport links in and out of the City were substantially improved, with railway stations being opened at Hampstead Heath, Finchley Road and Swiss Cottage. 

In the late 19th century, William Willet became chief builder in the area and undertook the redevelopment of the Eton College estate. Stepping away from the classical Victorian style which had favoured until this time, Willet took inspiration from the late 17th century and built homes in a Queen Anne style. These red brick structures were adorned with decorative elements, including ornamental glass and statement windows. Belsize Park architects to ensure that each home was unique, creating an eclectic mix of properties which characterise Belsize Park to this day.

As trends evolved and families sought out smaller homes and apartments, the vast mansions of Belsize Park became less popular, leading to numerous conversions taking place. Whilst the structures themselves retained their elegant design, Belsize Park architects converted these single-family properties into multiple flats and apartments. 

With innovative design, the availability of these more affordable homes reignited the interest in Belsize Park, and it once again became a thriving residential district. As vast gentlemen’s residences gave way to streets, squares and boulevards, current-day Belsize Park began to take shape.

Coined from the French term Bel Assis – meaning beautifully situated – Belsize Park has remained one of the most elegant areas of the City, with a thriving housing market and renowned community. With many of the buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th century still in use, Belsize Park architects have ensured that these stunning, historical buildings retain their charm and character, whilst also making way for the needs of modern-day homeowners. With contemporary interiors and lovingly restored exteriors, a simple stroll around Belsize Park gives an insight into the history of this much-loved part of London.

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